Visualising Varnish Removal for Conservation of Paintings by Fluorescence Lifetime Imaging (FLIM)

Christine Wilda, Aviva Burnstock, Francescopaolo Mattioli Della Rocca, Robert Henderson, Jakub Nedbal*, Klaus Suhling

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)
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The removal of varnish from the surface is a key step in painting conservation. Varnish removal is traditionally monitored by examining the painting surface under ultraviolet illumination. We show here that by imaging the fluorescence lifetime instead, much better contrast, sensitivity, and specificity can be achieved. For this purpose, we developed a lightweight (4.8 kg) portable instrument for macroscopic fluorescence lifetime imaging (FLIM). It is based on a time-correlated single-photon avalanche diode (SPAD) camera to acquire the FLIM images and a pulsed 440 nm diode laser to excite the varnish fluorescence. A historical model painting was examined to demonstrate the capabilities of the system. We found that the FLIM images provided information on the distribution of the varnish on the painting surface with greater sensitivity, specificity, and contrast compared to the traditional ultraviolet illumination photography. The distribution of the varnish and other painting materials was assessed using FLIM during and after varnish removal with different solvent application methods. Monitoring of the varnish removal process between successive solvent applications by a swab revealed an evolving image contrast as a function of the cleaning progress. FLIM of dammar and mastic resin varnishes identified characteristic changes to their fluorescence lifetimes depending on their ageing conditions. Thus, FLIM has a potential to become a powerful and versatile tool to visualise varnish removal from paintings. Graphical Abstract: [Figure not available: see fulltext.]

Original languageEnglish
Article number127
Number of pages37
JournalHeritage Science
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 16 Jun 2023


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